The booming voice of an announcer with a Jamaican accent rumbled from the stage at Abbotsfield Park on a vivid Saturday afternoon. Wind turned the sun-parched grass into tiny whips, rippling amidst the ankles of sandal-footed people of various skin colors. They strolled leisurely, licking ice creams and popping samosas into their talking mouths. Some filled the benches in front of the stage and watched with dull amusement as a man in a Moko Jumbie costume walked on stilts before them. It was stifling hot and the strong wind made the heavy air undulate over the hill to the frothy waves of the lake, which collapsed upon the shore insistently. They crashed most violently where the coast was punctuated with rock clusters. On one of the smoother portions of the shore, a group of twelve siblings fought over a half-deflated dingy, amidst coiling algae, Styrofoam coffee cups, and empty Coke cans.
A small boy with a red fire truck played at a safe distance from the savage mob of his siblings. He watched his eldest brother thrust his palm into his sister’s face, trying to push her off the side of the dingy, causing it to fold into a helix. White-knuckled, she lost her grip and fell off onto the hard, packed sand. He saw her contort her face in the beginnings of a cry and he felt sanctity in his isolation.
Parents by the hundreds sat on blankets husking corn and rotating sticks of meat over charcoal barbecues, his mother among them. Marcus was the youngest of his siblings and so he knew he would lose the battle of the dingy. Instead, he played alone.
He had constructed a miniature fire pit out of twigs, with pebbles for people. He imagined the fire growing out of control, the people running around frantic. He collided two pebbles into each other to signify their panic, grinding them so that they left white marks on each other. He leapt over to the fire truck and mimicked a distress call, “911! 911! We have a huge fire on the beach!” He grabbed the truck with his tiny, five-year-old hands and rolled it awkwardly over the sand to the fire.
As he turned to collect more pebbles to represent the firemen, his sister accidentally kicked his truck towards the water, knocking it onto the shoreline and into the path of a gluttonous wave. She watched with indifference as the water gathered around the truck in a shimmering hug, and dragged it out into the turbulence. Marcus was horrified. This was one of the few toys his brothers and sisters had not either claimed for themselves or destroyed. He watched as the lashing, white-capped waves chewed the truck further into the water. He ran over to the rocky edge of the shore.
There was a cluster of boulders situated in a line, which extended out like an arm, with a large bunch opening into the water like a hand. He fumbled out over the rocks, trying to follow alongside the bobbing red truck. He came out to the end of the rock island and hesitated. He remembered he was not allowed to swim alone, but he was too often alone. He glanced back at his family. They took no notice of him. He turned and dove into the lake.
Gavin sat sprawled atop his lifeguarding chair clad in baggy red shorts, white-rimmed sunglasses and a Steamwhistle baseball cap. Lackadaisically, he held onto a bottle of water, which he nursed in a weary struggle against a hangover. His thighs and shoulders reddened under the unforgiving glare of the sun. A red whistle, the zenith of all aquanaut authority, hung loosely between his lips, deployed more as a toy than for regulating the throngs of swimmers, who densely peppered the beach.
He had been on time that day, but he knew his sporadic punctuality would hardly improve his poor standing with management. He was on the brink of being fired. One slip up and he would have to surrender his nifty yellow throw and free supply of SPF 60. His boss, Dean Schultz, was practically hunting for ammunition to justify sacking the little puke. It was not that Dean Schultz was demanding or vindictive, and it had nothing at all to do with the fact that he was ex-military, it was that Gavin was unequivocally a shit-apple. He repeatedly slept through shifts, abandoned his post at the faintest signs of cloud coverage, called in sick almost every other weekend, and was generally too self-centered for an occupation that involved guarding the lives of others. Unfortunately lifeguarding was the only skill Gavin had acquired over three years of college (aside from expertise in the construction of bongs out of random household goods.) Furthermore, he rather enjoyed the bikini show, relished the tanning opportunity, and he needed the reference.
So there he sat, in all his bronze and oil-slicked splendor, running his fingers through his blonde hair, brainstorming how to thwart his looming unemployment. This thinking did not last long, as his headache was brainstorm enough, so he turned his attention outward to surveying the beach.
A very young, very pregnant girl ambled gracelessly over the stand, pushing a stroller full of diapers and cigarettes, with a toddler yelling and running circles around it. The child tried to run for the playground but the young mother caught the girl’s arm at the elbow, yanking her up off her feet violently so that she fell backwards against the stroller. The mother lowered her livid face to the child’s.
“What did I just say?” she said with a tight jaw. The child struggled to peek at the playground past the angry orb of her mother’s face.
Another toddler with a waterlogged, sand-caked diaper dropped his chocolate Popsicle in the sand, brushed it off with sticky, gritty hands, and stuck it back into his mouth.
Seagulls swarmed an abandoned poutine, pecking at each other’s necks and shrieking god-awful; hyenas of the sky.
Chris watched the display of sticky chaos out of the corner of his eye. He grimaced. The young frat-boy looking lifeguard caught his eye and returned his look of disgust, then smiled, nodded at him. Chris ignored the friendly intimation. He was standing with his hands on his gunbelt saying, “Anyone can get a fucking gun license. Its easier to get a gun license than an STD. But you need a special license for this one. You have to go through training. It’s pretty intense.”
“Don’t you just need to be a cop?” Joe asked.
“Yeah, you have to be a cop, but you also have to have the special license.” Chris became agitated quickly, especially when his import was called into question. “So what are you doing these days? Still working at that eyeglass factory?”
“Yeah. I’m still paying off my student loans,” Chris replied, thankful for the change of subject.
“Hah. That sucks man. I totally don’t regret not going to school, that’s for sure. But I guess your family made you go, eh?”
“No Chris, I want to be a lawyer. If they wanted me to, I wouldn’t be working my ass off paying for it myself.” Chris didn’t know how Joe got to be so serious, but, then again, Chris never spent much time with Joe when the two of them left high school.
Joe could not help noticing that Chris had not changed a bit since high school besides looking more weathered. As Chris coughed into his fist, Joe pictured Chris’ lugs as two slabs of charcoal coated in motor oil, and his air passage full of blackened lung-butter. From the rasp in his throat to the tips of his crow’s feet, it was apparent that drinking, smoking, and a false sense of authority had aged him prematurely. Joe waited patiently for him to finish coughing.
Once through, Chris laughed, “Great, so you can write the laws and I can make them happen. Like you’re the coach and I’m the quarterback.” He paused. Joe pursed his lips. “You’re the Yoda to my Luke,” Chris continued.
“I think it’s more like I am The Force and you are Darth Vader.” Joe corrected.
“But I’m The Force dude,” Chris replied. He failed to see the implication of Joe’s metaphor. He was checking out the ass of a girl running from the playground to the splash pad. “Check out the can on that one.” She turned around and wiped snot from her nose.
“That girl doesn’t even have pubic hair yet, man,” Joe reproved.
“Oh shit you’re right,” Chris said sniggering, and turned his back to the wind to shield his face from the strong breeze coming from the water’s edge. He lit a DuMaurier. “But still. Nice ass. She’ll grow into it.” Joe chuckled out of obligation and said goodbye.
Chris turned to the beach, propped a leg up on a picnic table, and scanned the area. Where was his partner? She had left to use the bathroom at least twenty minutes ago. There was a long line in front of the bathroom and Chris had told her to push to the front. She was a cop for chrissake. At least on paper. He knew better. Women should not be cops. Chris figured she got paired with him so he could toughen her up. He liked the idea of that, but having her around made him feel uncomfortable about strip-searching the good-looking pink-lipped women he pulled over late at night for driving five over. But he felt fine about tailing people for miles for no reason, without turning on the siren, until they were so bewildered that they would pull over out of sheer confusion. Then he would drive away, leaving them puzzled. “You gotta enjoy the little things,” he would tell his partner as they sped away, lighting a cigarette.
Patricia waited in a line that stretched all the way outside of the washroom. The smell traveled to even the last person in line. It was a moist, festering smell that only public bathrooms can provide. One woman offered to step aside for Patricia, but Patricia respectfully declined, said she’d wait. After a few seconds she reconsidered the interaction and regretted not taking the girl’s offer. By refusing the offer, she expressed humbleness, and had unwittingly undermined her own authority, perhaps forever in this woman’s eyes. She inwardly scolded herself. She had so much to learn. It was hard enough being one of the only females in her faction, but she was the only one that resembled a woman. No one took her seriously, especially Chris. She envied his confidence, and the sycophancy he drew out of people. He grew weary of chastising her every time she relapsed into her humble, small-town kindness, and although she could sense this she couldn’t counteract her instinct.
Just as she was settling back against the wall, she heard a distant, hysterical cry, which grew louder as a figure in an orange dress drew closer. It took the shape of a woman – mouth warping, body flailing, arms and hands gesturing wildly. Patricia could not make out what the woman was saying before she saw Chris, her partner, cast his burning cigarette into the grass and sprint towards the beach. Adrenaline filled what little part of her fear did not, and she bounded after him.
When she reached the beach, she did not see it at first. She followed one of the many pointing fingers to the object of their attention. Then she saw it: the limp body of a child being tossed among the waves like a marionette. She darted through the crowd in the path Chris had already plowed.
He was removing his belt and diving into the water. She skipped the disrobing and ran into the water. She swam fast and strong at first, but the sublime weight of the ebb forced her to a slow wade. Chris got to him first. Then Patricia. Then Gavin. In the wane of the waves, the water was only just over Chris’ shoulders, so he could still touch bottom. This allowed him to get a firm grip around the boy’s bicep, but as he was turning to shore he felt an undercurrent rip the boy loose. But it had been Patricia.
“I’ve got him!” she yelled. She had looped around his other arm and began towing his flaccid body to shore, with much difficulty.
“No, give him to me, Pat. The tide’s too strong,” Chris yelled and pulled the boy away from her. By this time Gavin had reached them. He grabbed the boy by his midsection and tried to wrestle him onto his float.
“It’s okay, I’ve got him,” yelled Gavin. He needed this. He had the float. He was the lifeguard. This was his job. He would save the boy. He would keep his job.
“Back off kid!” Chris shouted gruffly, shoving Gavin away. A wave swept over the four of them.
Patricia got a mouthful of water. It surprised her and she gargled and coughed, trying to clear her lungs. She lost her foothold and instinctively climbed onto the boy for support. She just needed a few seconds to regain her ground, then she would swim the boy to shore. Her partner would congratulate her. Her captain would pat her on the shoulder. She saw Gavin had resurfaced a few feet away, struggling to mount his float, and she envisioned everyone at the station giving her nods and looks of respect, instead of making mock gyrations behind her back. But Chris held fast to the boy’s arm, wrenched him away from Patricia. He felt the joint in the boy’s arm give. He kept pulling. He was going to save this kid’s life; a dislocated shoulder was a small price to pay.
On the shore people were swarming like ants on spilled pop. Most were slapping a hand over their mouths with wide eyes. One woman grabbed her hair. A photographer fought his way through the crowd and climbed atop a picnic table. Some continued barbecuing.
When Marcus was brought ashore to the waiting ambulance, his body was wilted and gray. Many people worked on him, but his eyes did not flicker. His fingers did not coil. The cough, the turn, the relief, the scolding, then the hugs; they did not come. His lips remained a glossy violet. The paramedics retreated and the woman in the orange dress cried and folded.
As the sun finally started to recede, and the people disperse, the water became still. A reporter began her newscast: “Tragedy ensued at Abbotsfield Park in Newcastle this afternoon.” The camera span widened to reveal the young mother with the misbehaved toddler. The reporter approached her, asking, “Could you tell us what happened here today?”
The mother stood smoking, shaking her head slowly as she looked out over the deserted beach. She stared at where the deep footprints pocked the sand in one area more than the others. The cameraman squirmed, unsure of whether to keep rolling. After a while, the mother inhaled deeply, exhaled a twirling ghost of smoke. “They just tore him apart,” she said, simply, only, and wandered off down the path.